Playing with war

Print edition : April 08, 2005

THREE years after the dangerous tamasha of Operation Parakram - which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee staged at great public expense, peril to peace and security, and, not least, damage to the morale of the valiant jawans - there is no sign of a national audit on that farce. Shortly before he became National Security Adviser, the late J.N. Dixit criticised India's response to the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, in these terms: "India's response was cosmetic and theatrical. Instead of taking punitive action across the LoC [Line of Control], India withdrew its High Commissioner from Islamabad and suspended all air and transport linkages with Pakistan. To compound this, India deployed more than 500,000 troops on the LoC and the border with Pakistan as an exercise in coercive diplomatic pressure... This did not make an impact although it cost India nearly (a) billion (rupees)" (The Hindustan Times, March 16, 2004; emphasis added, throughout).

This explains why there is no audit. Large sections of the intelligentsia tend to be chauvinistic; especially on Pakistan as, indeed, they were on China not long ago. Not that other and smaller neighbours are spared. Dixit criticised the government for not being tough enough; not for an Operation that bore no proportion to the provocation and had no connection with the perpetrators of the outrage.

It is this mindset that explains the regrets that still continue to be voiced on Kargil. The then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Air Marshal Vinod Patney said: "I cannot fathom why the IAF was not allowed to go across [the LoC]... I agree that there was a fear of escalation and the Pakistan Air Force could also have come across. So be it. You have to understand that air power is an offensive platform (sic) but we were using it defensively" (Outlook, March 7, 2005). We understand.

The Army Chief who conducted the operation in 2002, General S. Padmanabhan, told Praveen Swami that the political leadership did not "clearly understand the military options available, just how long they would take to execute and what their potential consequences could be" (The Hindu, February 6, 2004). He added: "Everyone seems to feel that the U.S. held us back."

Dixit held the same view. He said at a press conference in Hyderabad, on March 18, 2004, to quote the report in The Hindu the next day, that he "saw nothing wrong in India crossing the LoC, if necessary... (But) the government decided to withdraw troops, after stationing them in the forward areas for months together and spending Rs.800 crores. This was because the U.S. said `no' to the Indian move."

The Prime Minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is too intelligent to have imagined that when it came to the final move, the U.S. would acquiesce in India's attack on Pakistan, which was its indispensable ally in the war on the Taliban regime. The BJP leaders expected the U.S. to put pressure on Pakistan. Home Minister L.K. Advani revealed as much on December 25, 2001: "The situation has developed in a manner as to make it possible for India, with the support of world opinion (read, the U.S.), to force Pakistan to abandon terrorism as an instrument of policy." The U.S. would never have let India attack Pakistan.

Operation Parakram was launched on December 18, 2001. It was called off on October 16, 2002 after staging another tamasha. The Cabinet Committee on Security professed to act on the advice, given earlier that very day, after an "interaction" between the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister. The NSAB was used to stage the climbdown; as if its opinion mattered to the government (The Hindu, October 17, 2002).

Lt. Gen. (Retd.) V.K. Sood, former Vice-Chief of the Army Staff and Pravin Sawhney reveal a lot in their book Operation Parakram (Sage Publications, page 62): "According to informed Army sources, the Prime Minister called the three service chiefs (on December 18) and told them to prepare for a war with Pakistan. On being asked by General Padmanabhan what the government expected from the war, Vajpayee is understood to have said: Woh baad mein bataayenge (that will be told later)." It is strange that the General could not sense the reason for the Prime Minister's evasion of a very pertinent question he had properly asked. The Prime Minister was bluffing and the Army was used for staying a bluff - at a very high cost.

This brings us to the U.S.' role. Why did it not sound the alarm in December 2001 as it did in June 2002 with its advisories, to Advani's chagrin? Because it heartily approved of the Operation; but not its full execution. It used the Operation for its own ends - to put pressure on Pakistan to rein in the anti-American jehadis. It had no interest in an Indian attack on Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, let alone Pakistan. Once Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf took action against the jehadis, the U.S. began to turn the heat on India. Advani and Vajpayee thought that the U.S. could be used against Pakistan. Instead, it was the U.S. that used India throughout, skilfully.

"Realists" who aspire to reach great power status by climbing on the shoulders of a superpower end up comfortably into its lap. In 2003 some of them urged despatch of Indian troops to Iraq in aid of the U.S. as a projection of India's power. Americans admire them, hugely. Bar one figure, on whom later, most joined in whipping up public opinion in 2001-2002, or kept quiet. Some helped by advocating abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty.

DOMINIC JOHNSON'S book shows how over-confidence leads to wars. "Positive illusions appear to be such a self-deceptive trait. A number of empirical studies suggest that accurate information is in fact available, but that it remains concealed in the subconscious. This implies that positive illusions represent a self-serving bias via self-deception rather than an error arising from some deficiency in mental processing."

Wars launched thus end either in defeat or in a pyrrhic victory. The case studies cover the First World War, the Munich Crisis (1938), the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and Iraq (2003). "Data indicate that, since around 1500, attackers have lost one-quarter to one-half of the wars they started (depending on the method of calculation), and many of their successes have come at unexpected cost. The rationalist view, that one side fights and wins `at acceptable cost,' appears to be rare."

The author demonstrates that "over-confidence contributes to war... by virtue of human psychology we should fully expect a bias toward over-confidence by all sides in conflicts today, whether they are superpowers, small states, freedom fighters or terrorists".

In each case, the side that initiated an aggressive move - diplomatic or military - underestimated the strength and will of the adversary to retaliate. Khruschev's miscalculation in Cuba cost him his job eventually. But Kennedy had also miscalculated. He firmly believed that the Soviets would not put nuclear missiles on Cuba. When Khruschev did, Kennedy lamented to his advisers on October 16, 1962: "Maybe our mistake was not saying, sometime before this summer, that if they do this we're going to act." A warning to an adversary or a guarantee to an ally must be timely, explicit and credible. It must not push the adversary to the wall. It must concern a clear non-negotiable, vital interest - and no more.

What was the U.S.' interest in Vietnam, for which it lost 59,000 lives, with 303,000 injured? It did not expect to find itself in a mess in Iraq, either. The democratic check on presidential power failed to operate. "This predicament arose from a failure to adequately challenge administration policy and war aims, failure to adequately assess the intelligence information, political pressures due to upcoming mid-term elections, and, ironically, a belief that giving war powers to the President would signal to Saddam that war was a real possibility, thereby encouraging him to negotiate and decreasing the likelihood of war."

The author's conclusions in respect of the U.S., a superpower, apply all the more so to smaller powers. "On the large scale of U.S. grand strategy, the Bush doctrine's precedent for unilateral, pre-emptive war and to foster an entire state in the Middle East may reflect positive illusions about the ideological supremacy of the United States, its control over world events, and its future security. These three categories closely match forms of positive illusions found by psychologists: self-serving biases, illusions of control, and over-optimistic expectations about the future. As Robert Jervis warned, `the United States may be only the latest in a long line of countries that is unable to place sensible limits on its fears and aspirations'."

THE one politician who courageously expressed his reservations on Operation Parakram at the height of the simulated pressures and refused to join the pack was Pranab Mukherjee. He explained the Congress' support to the government while expressing his doubts. "It is strong national interest, nothing else. At this time, we do not want to create the impression that there is a divergence of views in the political establishment... Certain questions do come to mind. One is whether it was necessary to build up this type of hype, this war psychosis. Was it meant to draw international attention to the type of terrorist threat we are facing? Or was it meant to counter pressure from the inner layers of the Sangh Parivar?

"Another question constantly haunts me. If our demand is that Pakistan must stop supporting terrorism and it is only then are we prepared to talk, what does this mean? No country will say it is supporting terrorism, so how can it say it has stopped supporting terrorism?...

"Surely the problem cannot be resolved by launching a war against the country which is harbouring the terrorists. It is just not possible. We have to fight it within our borders; see that terrorists don't infiltrate into our country. This is how we have been doing it for the last 10-20 years. We are not in 1914, when an Austrian Prince was killed and Europe fought World War I. If you are the U.S. maybe you can think of doing that. When you are not, you are not... ."

Asked pointedly: "So do you feel that the government shouldn't have gone for a military build up along the border?", he replied: "I don't think so. They shouldn't have created this war hysteria. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-weapon states. Surely they are aware that the United Nations Security Council empowers the five permanent members with special powers to intervene in a conflict between two nuclear states?" (Arati R. Jerath, The Indian Express, January 13, 2002).

WHAT happened in 1914 is commonly regarded as a classic case of miscalculation. David Fromkin, a distinguished historian, establishes that there was, indeed, grave miscalculation. Contrary to common belief, however, the war was not launched in response to a "provocation", but in consequence of a deliberate decision taken long before Archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew to the Emperor Franz Joseph, head of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie, were assassinated in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914. The assassin was a student, Gavrilo Princip. The chain of events that led to the war is well known.

Bosnia was annexed by Austria in 1908. Gavrilo, a Bosnian, resented that. Austria gave an ultimatum to Serbia, on July 23, containing demands crafted for their rejection. Serbia professed compliance. The book contains the texts of both documents. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, proposed a four-power mediatory conference on July 26, with Britain, France, Germany and Italy as participants. Two days later, Austria declared war on Serbia. It was neither Serbia's ally Russia's mobilisation of its armed forces nor Austria's ally, Germany's mobilisation, which led to the war. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 soon after its ultimatum to Russia and its ally, France. It followed with one to Belgium demanding use of its territory against France. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, France had done so already.

In managing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy was haunted by what he believed he had learned from reading about the origins of the First World War in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. He felt that the war had been the result of an unintended chain reaction. Raymond Aron, one the greatest political thinkers of the 20th century, saw in the story of July 1914 "the unleashing of the First World War which none of the principal actors consciously or directly wished for". Not quite.

Fromkin writes: "The old fashioned detective story that became so popular with the generation that emerged from the Great War, in Britain in particular, often ended with all the surviving characters assembling in one room. There, in the ship's lounge or in the ballroom of the hotel or in the library of a country house, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or some similar private detective would explain what really had happened and would answer the ultimate question: who did it? For us, in our own inquiry, the room in which we gather to sum up must of necessity be a library." Only the archives can reveal the truth. The participants are dead.

The Italian historian, Liugi Albertini, was the last researcher who could question the participants. In the 1960s the pioneering research of Fritz Fischer, based on archival material, exploded conventional wisdom. Fromkin's researches lead him to conclude that Austria's Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtold became convinced after the Second Balkan War that Serbia had to be destroyed. The Foreign Office began drafting a memorandum outlining its plans a fortnight before Sarajevo. The assassination was not a provocation. It was a pretext. The Archduke was cordially disliked.

But Germany's enemy was not Serbia. It was Russia, whose growing might caused much concern. In 1909 General Helmuth von Moltke, Germany's Chief of Army Staff, assured Austria, with his government's backing, that their treaty of alliance would apply even if Austria had started a war. Germany wanted Austria to be the first to bear the brunt of war. It had reason to be uncertain of Austria's help if it went to war with Russia at the outset.

Fromkin systematically demolishes each myth, one after another - "the situation had got out of hand"; the rival mobilisations or miscalculated responses to provocations - to conclude: "Germany deliberately started a European war to keep from being overtaken by Russia." He remarks: "It takes at least two to keep the peace but it takes only one to start a war. If a government is determined to bring on a war, no appeasement, no matter how extensive or imaginative, will restrain it. Europe, having failed to understand what happened to it in 1914, had to be taught that lesson all over again in the aftermath of Munich in 1938-39. Only countervailing power will stop a government bent on launching an invasion."

Unfortunately, it is precisely on this point that he overlooks an important factor - British ambiguity till the end. As late as on July 24, 1914, Grey told the German Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky: "There was no alliance... committing as to... France and Russia." A week later, he told the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, that Britain was not a party to the Franco-Russian alliance. It would not intervene "unless our interests and obligations were deeply and desperately involved". Britain intervened not because a treaty of 1839 bound it to uphold Belgium's neutrality, but because, as Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wrote to his mistress Venetia Stanley, "It is against British interests that France should be wiped out as a Great Power." It was the classic British policy of Balance of Power on the continent.

Fromkin overlooks this aspect. Had Grey declared in advance that Britain would intervene in such an eventuality, Germany would have been deterred. On August 22, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain alluded to this in his letter to Hitler on the eve of the Second World War: "It has been alleged that if this Majesty's Government had made their position more clear in 1914 the great catastrophe would have been avoided". Britain's unilateral guarantee to Poland on March 21, 1939 - replaced by an agreement on mutual assistance on August 5 - was devised to avoid any such misunderstanding.

But, Hitler was not impressed. For Britain's Ambassador to Germany, Sir Neville Henderson, had been making overtures to him even after the guarantee. He reported, in a despatch to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, on May 28, his talks with Goering at his palatial home. He had urged the thug to be patient and solicited compromise even while warning him of action "if Germany resorted to another war of aggression". He added: "He (Goering) also produced with pride drawings of the tapestries, mostly representing naked ladies labelled with the names of various virtues, such as Goodness, Mercy, Purity, etc. I told him that they looked at least pacific, but that I failed to see Patience among them." This report was published in the Blue Book on the outbreak of the war, on September 3 (page 59). The British public found time to ask, amidst a war, what business His Majesty's Ambassador had to see drawings of "naked ladies". He explained that they were drawings of nudes, not of known women.

Hitler had "severely underestimated" Britain and France's readiness to go to war over Poland despite the brilliant German Ambassador Herbert von Dirksen's excellent Memorandum on "Britain's Probable Attitude in the Event of a German-Polish Conflict", dated August 28, 1939. "The fact would have to be reckoned with that Britain would come to Poland's aid" in the event of a German "military action against Poland" (Documents and Materials Relating to the Eve of the Second World War: Vol. II, Dirksen Papers; Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1948; page 142).

In 1939 Hitler was a victim of "positive illusions" as the Kaiser was in 1914. Illusions are, however, formed in a given atmosphere. An "intense arms race was the most visible feature of Europe's political landscape" before 1914. Militarism held sway. "The build up in the armed forces was intended to achieve national security, but instead undermined it; the arms race, driven by mutual fears, ended by making all the Great Powers of Europe radically insecure." Moltke told Germany's Chancellor in a memo of December 2, 1912: "All sides are preparing for a European war, which all sides expect sooner or later." Any of the pre-war crises could have led to war.

The press played its role, as it does mostly, to fan the flames. The Suez war in 1956 was a notable exception. The main war-monger, Moltke, told the Kaiser in 1912 that "a war is unavoidable and the sooner the better". He added a significant "but" - "we ought to do more through the press". Admiral von Muller conveyed the Kaiser's order to the Chancellor to use the press to prepare the people for a war with Russia. This was in 1912, two years before the war.

Fromkin reveals: "In Russia there was a violent press campaign against Germany. The Pan-German League, a well-connected pressure group in Germany, announced (April 19, 1914) that `France and Russia are preparing for the decisive struggle with Germany and Austria-Hungary and they intend to strike at the first opportunity'. A newspaper headline (March 11, 1914) warned Germans: `A war, the like of which history has never seen, is approaching'."

The story is replete with instances of Foreign Ministers aspiring to "score a dazzling success" - and miscalculating through sheer overconfidence. Professional diplomats were made pliant or sidelined. Austria's annexation of the Ottoman Province of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 had upset the balance of power in the Balkans. The Kaiser called it "fearful stupidity". Russia was alarmed. Those were days when Ambassadors flouted their Foreign Minister's instructions and the latter, their Prime Minister's who, in turn, played games with the head of state.

An adventurous German Foreign Minister, Kiderlen-Wachter, brought his country to the brink of war with France in 1911 over Morocco. Neither the Chancellor nor the Kaiser was privy to this. He died at the end of the year after downing six cognacs. Deception was practised by all.

"A secret truth about the politics of 1914 - something of which the outside world had no suspicion - was that if these two men continued to work together in pursuit of their common policy goals, the Great Powers of Europe might well have remained at peace. The wars of 1914 would not have taken place."

They were the Chiefs of Staff of Germany (Moltke) and Austria (Conrad). Germany's Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow recorded that Moltke told him in 1914 that in a couple of years the "military superiority of our enemies would... be so great that he did not know how he could overcome them. Today we would still be a match for them. In his opinion there was no alternative to making preventive war in order to defeat the enemy while there was still a chance of victory. The Chief of the General Staff therefore proposed that I should conduct a policy with the aim of provoking a war in the near future."

Germany was willing to back Austria; but, like all big powers who back a smaller one's military venture, it insisted on speed to confront the world with a fait accompli - strike rapidly to crush Serbia. On July 6, 1914, the Kaiser approved this plan. He "believed that for all practical purposes there was no risk at all". The Kaiser's conviction was that the crisis would pass quickly; "that the situation would be cleared up within a week, because of Serbia's backing down". A grave miscalculation. Serbia fought back.

Austria's excuse was thin. There was no proof of Serbia's complicity in the murder; at best, of "persons with ties to government". All the three trials that followed were political. Serbia's chief of military intelligence stonewalled probes by the government.

It was Germany that prodded Austria to strike. Austria's Foreign Minister Berchtold told the Russians on July 25 that the Austrian break in relations with Serbia would not necessarily lead to a war: "Our demands could bring about a peaceful solution."

But, a cable arrived from his Ambassador in Berlin reminding him that Germany expected Austria to commence hostilities. "Here every delay in the beginning of war operations is regarded as signifying the danger that the foreign powers might interfere. We are urgently advised to proceed without delay."

Fromkin writes in a lively style to trace the tangled course of events in meticulous detail. Germany ran Austria's policy. Austria "went on taking orders from Germany". It declared war on Serbia on July 28 "because the German Foreign Minister told them to do it".

The Kaiser gave a blank cheque to Austria but he "did not believe that he was initiating a war among the Great Powers. He believed he was encouraging Austria to make war on Serbia, but that none of the other powers would go to war. He appeared to be certain of that." He wanted war with Russia without involving Britain.

His miscalculation on this point engulfed Europe in a war. He lost his throne and two Empires broke up - the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. The victors began to draw a new map for the conquered lands of the Ottomans in West Asia. The consequences of their imperialist arrogance and their greed are still with us nearly a century later. David Fromkin has recorded that episode in his classic A Peace to End All Peace.

Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? by David Fromkin; Alfred A. Knopf; pages 349, $26.95.

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